In his first public comments since NASL owners met last week in Atlanta to plot the circuit’s future, commissioner Bill Peterson stressed to SI.com that the league intends to move forward from a position of strength. That means identifying and coalescing around a core of committed clubs next season, and then crafting a plan to expand intelligently in 2018 and beyond.
“The discussions were both positive and productive, and many of the agenda items were largely focused on the league’s long-term vision,” Peterson said. “It was exciting to see owners emphasizing their commitment towards ensuring that the NASL continues to develop.”
That commitment has been put to the test in certain cities as the American pro soccer landscape shifts and settles. MLS will add teams in Minneapolis-St. Paul and Atlanta (both former NASL markets) next season, bringing the first-division league to 22 clubs. It intends to expand to at least 28. The USL, which is a hybrid of independent teams, affiliates and MLS reserve sides, has grown from 14 members in 2014 to 29 this year. It will surpass 30 in 2017. The 12-team NASL has been caught in the middle, reluctant to accept second-tier status while trying to find the right balance between collective stability and the unique independence offered to its clubs.
At this point, as the NASL’s sixth regular season enters its final three weeks, there appears to be sufficient stability to give Peterson the freedom to explore expansion. In 2002, MLS contracted, solidified and then grew. At the same point in its evolution, the NASL must do the same.
“Over the course of the next few weeks, the league has several meetings scheduled with potential investment groups that are looking at a number of intriguing markets,” Peterson said Friday. “While we like to keep the expansion process private, I can confirm that we have continued to receive tremendous interest from investors located in both North America and also throughout the world.”
At the moment, it still looks like the NASL’s Ottawa Fury and Tampa Bay Rowdies will leave for the USL after the season, although the latter’s departure isn’t finalized. Minnesota United is on its way to MLS and the expansion San Francisco Deltas are scheduled to come in, giving the NASL its first team in the Pacific time zone.
The Fort Lauderdale Strikers need new owners, and Rayo OKC’s future remains cloudy. Parent club Rayo Vallecano would like to remain invested in the NASL under the right conditions, but its ability to continue funding the OKC club independently while pursuing promotion from Spain’s Segunda División is uncertain. Although the New York Cosmos have stadium problems and FC Edmonton continues to have attendance and isolation issues, there’s no indication their 2017 participation is in doubt.
Toss in healthier clubs like Miami FC, Indy Eleven, Carolina Railhawks, Puerto Rico FC and Jacksonville Armada, and there’s enough there for the NASL to rally around. Even if the league fields eight or nine teams next year, if Peterson and the remaining owners are able to secure new commitments for 2018, the NASL would be in position to rebound.
“No league in this country has launched and not had some expansion and contraction issues and we’re not going to be any different,” Peterson told SI.com prior to the Atlanta meetings. “I think our league is beyond—I hope its beyond—the point of anybody doubting if it’s going to be in existence. I think the model has demonstrated that it can be successful if you work hard at it, you’re passionate, you're in the right cities.”